Kay Jensen and her husband, Paul Ehrhardt, pasture both chickens and turkeys on their JenEhr Family Farm near Sun Prairie. Their pastured poultry operation opened in 1999 with 500 chickens, doubling to 1,000 chickens in 2000. Last year they raised 2,500 chickens and 50 turkeys; in 2002 they plan to raise 4,800 chickens, 50 commercial turkeys and 100 “heritage” turkeys, breeds containing more dark meat, and more wild turkey genes, than commercial turkeys.
Their pastures feature four clover varieties. “We”ve found that the birds like clover, but don”t seem to like grasses as much. The turkeys will eat some weed seeds, but the chickens head right for the clover,” Ehrhardt says. “The birds gain quickly. Our chickens reach 5 to 7 pounds at 8 to 9 weeks of age. We use no chemical fertilizers or treated seed in the pastures, and no antibiotics or hormones in the birds. We lost some birds figuring out how to do it this way, but our goal was to follow organic practices.”
Having a processor close by is a big plus for the operation. “Plucking 2,500 chickens is not my idea of a good time,” Jensen comments. “We have our birds processed at Twin City Pack near Janesville. We didn”t want a 4-hour drive to a USDA plant in Minnesota; it”s not good for the birds, and not good for our goal of keeping the operation local.”
“At 2,500 chickens we spent three hours a day just moving and feeding the birds, and figure on 4 hours per day this year with 4,800 chickens. This doesn”t include time spent building pens, selling the birds, taking them to the processor, and delivering them to customers,” Ehrhardt says. All the birds are pre-sold.
Jensen and Ehrhardt also have 3 acres of vegetables grown for wholesale and community-supported agriculture, an acre of strawberries and a half-acre of asparagus, and a hoop house for early and late lettuce, broccoli, and herbs. The enterprise also includes raising two kids.
Jensen handles marketing, bookkeeping and labor management; Ehrhardt handles production, including planting, making and moving pens, and feeding and watering. “We make sure we”re accountable to each other on these divisions,” Jensen says. “The first year we weren”t, and that was a problem. We”ve picked what suits us well in dividing the labor.” Jensen has a bachelor”s degree in agricultural journalism and a master”s in business administration; Ehrhardt has a bachelor”s in meat and animal science and ag education, and a master”s in soil science.
“We love raising chickens, and feeding our friends and neighbors. We”ve had fewer problems than most people because of our location. We have easy access to feed, a processor close by, and expert advice available from the College. And we have really good chickens,” Jensen says. “It”s a niche market. When someone eats one of our chickens, we know about it, and there”s a satisfaction in that.”